Chris d Craiker AIA
After seven years of planning and construction, the blue protective mylar veils are coming off the Napa Valley College Student housing project, known as River Trail south of Imola Avenue. Providing adequate housing for college students is a major challenge in today's academic world. As college tuitions escalate, our local community colleges are providing exceptional education for students, allowing them to work at home and afford higher education and ride the escalator to higher education degrees. Not all can work at home but many need to rent shelter near the school and that can be a challenge. For the first time the Federal Government has released data on undergraduate students showing up to 23% are experiencing food insecurity and up to 8% have experienced some form of homelessness. This Federal survey occurred during the pandemic where significant trials and uncertainties among students occurred across the board of all higher educational institutions. Notably, undergraduate students attending for-profit colleges had the highest rate of unhoused up to 10.7%. Also alarming is the statistic that 15% of American Indian and Alaskan natives had experienced some form of homelessness or couch surfing. The Ivy League schools avoided the surveys but are not without unhoused students. While undergraduates often experience episodic or temporary homelessness, the need for affordable student housing is universal.
The goal of the River Trail Village was to provide various student levels of affordable housing to encourage student success. Low-income students make up about 40% of the NVC student population. The intent was to create a singular facility with a sense of community that connected with the campus while consisting of three distinct facilities. 64 traditional dorm style housing units, 156 student apartments of one bedroom to three bedroom as well as family housing was a focus. Initially, the concept was to provide multiple distinct buildings that displayed the unique housing types within them each of them. Each building would have its own lobby and outside areas. The family housing facility would include play equipment and secure perimeter for parents and small children. The 588 bed project makes the school among only 20 of 116 community colleges in the State that offer student residential accommodations. Two to four bedroom apartments will be priced at $1530 to $1858 dollars a month compared to market rate new apartments of $2500 for a one bedroom.
The need for affordable student housing is essential, but this mission has lost its way. The design and plan lacks character, compassion and humanity.
The project started in 2017 with Staff and Board developed criteria. After two years of design, review and documentation, it submitted to the State of California and received its’ Notice of Completion & Environmental Document review in August 2020 and the subsequent Mitigated Negative Declaration soon thereafter. Much attention was given to environmental issues and over 20 State departments reviewed the documents. In the initial 2020 NVCSH proposed Mitigated Negative Declaration, “Aesthetics” were limited to 3 pages regarding adverse effects on scenic vistas, scenic resource damage and creating substantial adverse day or nighttime glare. The State did not provide any design review, and the County and City were prohibited from comment or review.
I am not a big fan of municipal design reviews. They are generally subjective and often personality driven. Nonetheless, it does provide the public the opportunity to examine and comment on a project. Clearly none of that occurred here. I've reviewed the few renderings that were provided by the architects and they portray a limited building view, tranquil and contemporary in design but the actual view of the building complex as one approach the 4 story monoliths is that of a sterile Soviet-style housing project. The surfaces are flat, lacking detail or character. Some ornamentation has been provided around a few windows which are not found in the original design and appear to be added to minimize the lack of character of the buildings. Color was not even considered, beyond 1970s Navajo White. The hallways are grime and uneventful. Simple breaks in the transitions would add enormously.
Providing affordable shelter does not have to be without design assets. Stepping the buildings exterior and incorporating elements even with modest budgets is not impossible. Color and contrast can make a trash can sparkle. What's essential is talent, good design and public input that allows review and conversations about how a new community like this can work. Affordable housing doesn't have to be boring.
I discussed the process with James Reeves, Napa Valley College Vice President of Administrative Services, who came on board two years ago right after the last “Value Engineering “round. VE means cutting construction costs and in that case, he was too late to save some sun protecting awnings that would have been both aesthetically pleasing and environmentally valuable.
The college could have asked for public input about the design during the process. It could have created a far better environment for the students and for the surrounding community. The students will come and go but unfortunately, we in Napa will have to live with it for a long time.
Chris d Craiker AIA/NCARB would have liked this to be painted Sherwin Williams, “Invisible”